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As Elon Musk antagonizes rival, space industry battled over who will host cocktail reception for vice president

The Washington Post

February 18. 2018 10:29PM
Vice President Mike Pence delivers opening remarks during the National Space Council's first meeting in October 2017 at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. (JOEL KOWSKY/NASA)

After he launched his giant new rocket into space two weeks ago, Elon Musk said he was spoiling for a good race in space. Last week, he learned his rivals were up for the challenge, even when it involves such terrestrial trivialities as a cocktail party.

Ahead of the second meeting of the White House’s National Space Council in Florida this week, a consortium of upstart entrepreneurial companies known as the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which includes SpaceX, decided to host a reception for members of the council, who just happen to be some of the most powerful players in Washington. Headed by Vice President Mike Pence, the policymaking council is made up of the secretaries of State, Commerce, Treasury, Transportation and Defense, as well as other top government officials.

But when the groups representing some of the more traditional space contractors, such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, caught wind of the party, they complained to the White House, which agreed that they, too, should host the reception.

The ultimate party crash?

More like “we wanted to make sure the entirety of the industry was represented to the council and not just a subset,” said one industry official not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

As a result, what started as a simple soiree has ballooned into a full-on convocation, according to five industry and government officials who discussed the back and forth, agreeing to speak only on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Some history: Once derided as an “ankle biter” by its competitors, SpaceX, and the entrepreneurial industry it has helped spawn, has emerged as a disruptive force that has forced the space industry establishment to improvise and adapt. SpaceX currently has contracts, worth several billion dollars, to fly cargo and eventually astronauts to the International Space Station. And it is threatening the lock that the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed and Boeing, have long had over the lucrative national security market.

Such is the intensity of their rivalry that when industry veterans heard that SpaceX and its ilk in the Commercial Spaceflight Federation planned to host an low-key gathering with the vice president and others ahead of the Space Council meeting, they launched an all-out lobbying blitz insisting they be included.

After taking their complaints to the Space Council, the party, to be held Tuesday evening at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, grew in size and is now being hosted by the Aerospace Industries Association, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, as well as the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

In a statement, Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, formally welcomed the new co-hosts, saying it is to be an “inclusive event that celebrates the achievements and innovations of the American space industry.” He said his group looks “forward to the work the Vice President and the Council are doing to help move America forward on our shared goals and dreams that space offers. We are partnering on this event with our association colleagues to showcase the best and brightest aspects of American ingenuity.”

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